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We Asked Australia's True Crime Expert Why the Country Is So Obsessed with Horrible Murders

"It's a more interesting way to get riled up than watching Q&A, because there's a murder."

Image courtesy of Festival of Dangerous Ideas

For the past few years, John Safran has been consumed by true crime. When a man he loosely knew was murdered, he was drawn into the case and the mystery surrounding it. That encounter became his book Murder in Mississippi. But after its publication he has lingered in Australia's surprisingly robust true crime community, writing about cases and hosting a podcast on the topic. As a result, he's become an unlikely source of insight into not only why people commit crimes, but why we want to hear about them. This month, John will mediate VICE's panel at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, where we'll examine the state of incarceration in Australia. In anticipation of that, we called him up to ask why Australia really seems to loves a murder.

VICE: Researching this interview, I was surprised by how much of a juggernaut the true crime genre is in Australia. Why are we so drawn to it?
John Safran: I'm totally over-generalizing, but I think with especially modern true crime, there are two readerships. One is getting their thrills by reading horrible stuff and not having to face up to the fact they're getting something out of it. If you like playing Grand Theft Auto, you have to face the fact you're into this macabre thing. With true crime you can say, I'm reading about this for educational purposes.

Then you have the people who are political or progressive, and read these books because it's about an injustice. It's a more interesting way to get riled up than watching Q&A, because there's a murder. Since coming to crime writing you've spent a lot of time with other authors through your true crime podcast. Do you recognize yourself in them?
I do, and I get inspired by things they have done. When I spoke to Ann Rule who wrote The Stranger Beside Me about Ted Bundy, she talked about how she started writing crime stories to pay the bills after she lost her job. She had young kids and her husband had left her. I thought that's such a different reason to write. For her it was a practical consideration which paid off. I thought that's a much better way of producing art. I'm confused by this literature versus popular culture thing—I think I'm middlebrow or something. Why isn't The Stranger Beside Me considered a great work? I've noticed this thing of making a distinction between literary true crime and pulp true crime. Do you think that distinction shouldn't exist?
To me it's about whether the writer went out and gathered new material, met people, and wrote about it. That's what I like in a crime book. Not some person googling everything so the book's not alive, but just a set of facts. One thing I learnt about true crime is it's huge in Australia. An American bookstore won't necessarily even have a true crime shelf. But in Australia, even a small bookshop will have a section. Is there anything specific that's created that culture?
Australians seem to like gangland stories and bikers. People feel better saying, "These people are a bit like me, they're Aussies, but they're from the wrong side of the track and they're bad people and I'm not a bad person." Australia is a pretty safe place, crime feels further away, more exotic than if say you personally knew people who had been murdered. I hadn't put it together before but you're right, even women's magazines regularly run huge features dedicated to grizzly crime stories.
Exactly, it's a weird mainstream thing. I caught up with this former police dude from Melbourne Homicide Squad who'd helped the Herald Sun with their crime reporting. He said at the paper every department was getting smaller, but the true crime section of the website was getting bigger. It's not just written content,Law and Order has been on for decades and never dips in ratings. At the same time True Detective came along and was one of the most heralded shows ever. They both deal with rapes and murders, and despite what people say, we're watching them for the same reasons.
I always roll my eyes at SVU because it's totally salacious, but they give a little morality so there's an out clause and you don't feel like a sick person watching it. And they solve the crime. You can watch this awful thing because you're assured the world is just and the police will save you.
For some reason that reminded me of something else I've learnt from writing about true crime: there are always holes in stories. Like when Serial was on and everyone was like, "It doesn't make any sense, she made this call on April the second, that doesn't add up with the call she made on April tenth." When I was investigating crime there were always holes. When there's a story as complicated as a murder, they were always going to be there. When Serial was on, did everyone want to speak to you about it?
It became a joke. I'm on a Facebook message group with friends and I'd post every time someone emailed or commented on my page saying, "John, I don't know if you've heard of this show…" But it was helpful when my book was getting released in America. Like, if you loved Serial, these are the books you have to read. Do you think you could solve a murder?
I'd like to. I think you can solve it and it can still be covered up. The one in that town in New South Wales—I didn't solve it—but I think people know who did it. If the the police read my article they'd go, "John wasn't allowed to name that person for legal reasons, but we know who it is." I find that really strange. If Tony Abbott or the chairman of Telstra's kid was killed they would have caught the person. But if you're considered to be a scumbag by society, you can be brushed aside. You don't want to admit it, but there is a hierarchy of whose death is worth looking into.
I agree. It's really depressing when you realize people think, say, sex workers are lower than other people in society, therefore they don't matter. When you start poking around for crime stories you realize there's so much that doesn't even get in the newspaper. You don't have enough journalists to cover all these stories. Has writing about crime changed the way you look at the world around you?
I don't know if it's totally crime related, but I'll turn up to a nationalist Reclaim Australia protest and hang with the people who look the most threatening and not give a shit. You get a bit fearless. When you're a writer, your job is to listen to someone. They might have done the most horrible thing, but your job is to listen to them. You let things go. Follow Wendy on Twitter. John will be moderating Incarceration: A VICE Panel at this month's Festival of Dangerous Ideas.